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Fulton County judge rules all 19 defendants in Trump RICO case cannot be tried together

Legal analysis of Trump-Georgia hearing
Breaking down Wednesday's pre-trial hearing in Trump's Georgia RICO case 11:18

Fulton County Judge Scott McAfee ruled Thursday in favor of severing the trials for 17 of the defendants, including former President Donald Trump, from that of two other defendants charged over alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

The trial for the two defendants, lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, is scheduled to begin Oct. 23. McAfee denied their request to have trials separate from each other. The judge said his decision "is simply a procedural and logistical inevitability." 

"Beginning with the logistical concerns, the Fulton County Courthouse simply contains no courtroom adequately large enough to hold all 19 defendants, their multiple attorneys and support staff, the sheriff's deputies, court personnel, and the State's prosecutorial team," he wrote in his ruling. "Relocating to another larger venue raises security concerns that cannot be rapidly addressed."  

McAfee also pointed to the projected length of trial as a factor. Prosecutors have said it could be four months long, with over 150 witnesses. 

Donald Trump Attends Monumental Leaders Rally In South Dakota
 Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Monument Leaders Rally hosted by the South Dakota Republican Party on September 08, 2023 in Rapid City, South Dakota.  Scott Olson / Getty Images

"[W]e must consider the ripple effects of a monthslong, multi-defendant trial on the local criminal justice system, sidelining dozens of defense counsel from handling other cases and preventing this Court — and quite likely most colleagues — from managing the rest of the docket," the judge said.

Chesebro and Powell were among the 19 defendants indicted by a Fulton County grand jury last month on charges stemming from an alleged scheme to reverse Trump's loss in Georgia's 2020 presidential election. All 19 charged, including Trump, pleaded not guilty to the counts filed against them.

Chesebro and Powell each invoked their right to a speedy trial and asked McAfee, who is presiding over the racketeering case, to separate their cases not only from one another, but also from the other 17 defendants charged in the sprawling indictment. McAfee held arguments on their requests last week.

McAfee called it an "absolute necessity" for the 17 defendants to be tried separately from Chesebro and Powell, and noted that "additional divisions of these 17 defendants may well be required." 

And McAfee, acknowledging that one of the other major RICO cases that is being tried, the Young Slime Life (YSL) trial has been mired in jury selection for months, wrote that he "will endeavor to have a jury selected and sworn by November 3, 2023," in the trial of Chesebro and Powell.

"Defendants Chesebro and Powell will join each other at trial, however, the other 17 defendants are severed from these two," he concluded. "Additional severances may follow."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had argued all 19 defendants should be tried together, writing in a court filing that it would be feasible to do so, "whereas breaking this case up into multiple lengthy trials would create an enormous strain on the judicial resources of the Fulton County Superior Court."

In addition to addressing motions for severance, McAfee denied requests from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, former Justice Department official Jeff Clark, and defendants David Shafer and Shawn Still to stay the proceedings in Fulton County while their motions to move their case to a federal venue are pending. This means they must continue to meet the deadlines in the Fulton County Court as scheduled.

A federal judge last week turned down Meadows' attempt to move his case to federal court and sent it back to the Fulton County Superior Court. Meadows has appealed the decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and a three-judge panel is set to consider Friday a request by Meadows to pause the U.S. district court's order while his appeal proceeds. 

But following a scheduling order issued by McAfee in the state case, Meadows is now seeking to withdraw his pending request for a stay and suggested the scheduled arguments may no longer be necessary. 

Trump, too, has indicated that he may seek to move his case to federal court, according to a filing from his lawyers.

Chesebro has been charged with seven counts related to an alleged plot to submit a false slate of presidential electors from Georgia who would support Trump. The indictment alleges that the lawyer proposed in a memo to the former president's allies a "bold, controversial strategy" that involved appointing alternate electors who were loyal to Trump in several states. 

Powell was among the conservative lawyers who pushed baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election and participated in a contentious meeting at the White House in December 2020, during which White House lawyers confronted her and lawyer Rudy Giuliani about their election claims.

The indictment also alleges that Powell coordinated with a data company, SullivanStrickler, to access election data from Coffee County, Georgia. She faces seven counts related to those efforts.

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